Ethics & Public Policy Center

What Is Education Good For?

Published in The Weekly Standard on March 12, 2018

On Saturday mornings, I make eggs and bacon for my four children and wife—usually a dozen eggs and most of the package of bacon—before shoveling the kids into the car, hopping into the driver’s seat, and pretending my minivan is a Mustang so that we get to catechism class on time. By the time I drop the merry band off at 9:15 with Sister Josepha, I’m exhausted and ready for IVs of coffee to be stuck in both arms. I can hardly believe that’s only two hours of one morning of the week. (Mercifully, I then get the best, most peaceful part of my week: an hour and a half of coffee and conversation with my wife.)

It’s astounding how much time, effort, and cost go into bringing children to maturity. Beyond the expenses of food and clothing and shelter—the Department of Agriculture has estimated that to raise a child from birth to 17 years old costs almost $250,000 dollars for a middle-class American family—there’s the work of socializing children through family and communal life. And, of course, there’s the schooling of children, which lasts, in America, for a minimum of 11 years—and, more often than not, upward of 15 years.

This dimension of child-rearing—schooling and education—has ballooned out of control in America, according to the latest book from idiosyncratic libertarian intellectual Bryan Caplan. In The Case Against Education, he argues that there is too much schooling and that it is insufficiently focused on preparing students for careers and work. The Ivory Tower is too big and it fails to prepare people for the marketplace.

To prove his case, Caplan demonstrates that most subjects taught in school have very little use because they have very little payoff. Besides literacy and basic numeracy, which most adults need on a regular basis, there are few subjects taught in school that students go on to use as adults. Famously, most college majors are not put to use. Fine arts? Nope. English literature? Sorry, pal. Psychology? Quit kidding yourself. Even those who study useless subjects and go on to get jobs are usually “mismatched”—their courses of study do not align with their career work.

Going to college is more necessary than ever for anyone who wants a decent job. But if colleges do not, for the most part, teach relevant content to students, and if the requirements necessary to complete college have gotten more and more lax over the past 50 years—and Caplan has the research to show that this is true—then why do so many employers require their employees to have college degrees?

The answer, according to Caplan, is simple: signaling. Employers like college degrees because it saves them time and effort evaluating candidates. A college degree is a proxy for capabilities they are looking for; it suggests that a job applicant has certain intellectual capabilities, enough moral decency to be trusted, and isn’t a total freak who will quit out of the blue to pursue his dream of becoming a shepherd. As a proxy, it’s not foolproof but it’s a reliable enough indicator that it can save employers some of the time and energy they would otherwise have had to invest in finding out who a job candidate really is. Education credentials allow students to “signal their intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity,” Caplan writes. Given the knowledge and skills actually taught now in our education system, he estimates that American education is 80 percent signaling and only 20 percent building human capital—that is, teaching useful knowledge and skills to adults.

Adults—especially politicians—signal their democratic, egalitarian virtue by insisting that education, the building of human capital, is the pathway to a better future and society. But given how much students actually take away from their educations, the progressive dream of achieving equality through education shows itself to be at best an ideal that needs serious work.

If the subjects taught in most schools today have little to no use, the reader is left to wonder what a different education system might look like. The book, partly due to Caplan’s clear-eyed analysis and partly due to his eccentric, cutting, and energetic writing style, will shock readers out of their complacency with respect to the usual categories and pieties of education in America today. The importance of college, the sanctity of “education” as a tool for societal amelioration, the assumption that education is even good at all—Caplan challenges all of these notions. For the reader, the result is an occasion for wonder and imagination.

The Case Against Education lays the groundwork for readers to think anew about education, what it does and ought to do, what place it holds and ought to hold in American society. It ought to be a wake-up call for all Americans, especially those who seek to champion “education” without explaining why it’s a worthy cause.

Ian Lindquist is a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He taught sixth and seventh grades, as well as high school sophomores and juniors, from 2009 to 2015.

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